House debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) Share this | Hansard source

It has been an extraordinary debate, with a lot of passion. I acknowledge the speech we just had from the member for Tangney. I note the member for O'Connor and his contribution, and I note the many conversations I had on this issue with his predecessor.

At its core, the scenario on the ground that is at stake here is: a farmer grows some wheat that they got for harvest and someone comes to them and says, 'I can offer you a better price.' Are they allowed to take the best price? That is the principle this whole thing is about. If you have a single desk, the answer is: 'No, you can't do that. You can't go to the best price that comes to you. We'll tell you who you have to sell it to.' Even with the regulated system that we have at the moment, which is not single desk, whether they are accredited or not determines whether you can sell to them. So there will be occasions where a grower will be offered the best price and they are not allowed to take it. I do not think that is fair. I do not think that is a reasonable position. It is the opposite of free enterprise. It is the opposite of an open market and it is the opposite of the direction this parliament ought to go in.

In this debate, I have a level of respect for the National Party position to the extent that it has been consistent. I think it is a ridiculous position, but at least it has been held consistently. From the days of AWB the members of the National Party—and in this I separate the National Party member from WA—have at least been consistent in their position, the whole way through the debate, as to what they think should happen.

I feel for those members of the Liberal Party who believe in free enterprise because, unless they cross the floor, they are about to vote against it. No one should be in any doubt as to the simplicity of the scenario we are talking about. Someone pays for their land, invests in the costs of putting a crop together and invests in the harvesting of that crop—and we are about to decide whether or not they are allowed to choose what they think the best deal they can get is. That is this issue in its entirety.

I have referred before to a meeting that I had on a wheat farm back in the electorate of O'Connor, when I first became Australia's agriculture minister. A young grower there made the comment to me: 'Why can't I choose who I sell to? It's my wheat.'

Dr Stone interjecting

A whole lot of arguments will come up, and I hear some being interjected back and forth across the chamber right now, saying: 'It's all too complex. It's about the quality assurance.' There will be a million weasel words to come up with an answer that, at its core, says that you want to tell that farmer: 'We will tell you who you are allowed to sell to. It's not your wheat.' It is the absolute height of arrogance from a parliament, wanting to resolve that it knows better than the individual farmer who that farmer can sell to. That is the position some members of this parliament are about to take.

The National Party have consistently said that this right of a farmer should not be there, and they have acted on that. The Liberal Party, throughout its history—until this year—had a position that they were always on the deregulation side of the argument. John Howard's Liberal Party would have been voting for deregulation. Brendan Nelson's Liberal Party would have been voting for deregulation. If the member for Wentworth were still the leader of that party it would be voting for deregulation. The current Leader of the Opposition is fundamentally taking the Liberal Party to a position where they believe government should tell growers who they are allowed to sell to. It is a position that is not just wrong—and a completely arrogant position to take to that grower—but also the opposite of any of the principles that would have caused members to join the Liberal Party.

If anyone has a chance to flick through Hansard, there are a few high points. The member for Hume's contribution was extraordinary both for what he said and for what he chose to not say. Here is someone who has defended deregulation all of his political life. He is now in a situation where he is intending to vote in a different direction. That says everything about the direction the Leader of the Opposition is taking that party. The member for Fisher, I think, made a contribution that will be memorable for a very long time, and it was true to the principles of a party that is about to abandon a whole lot of principles.

All we are saying to the Liberal Party is: why not do something really radical and be on the free-enterprise side of the equation in this vote? That is all this vote is about. The member for New England knows the industry well. He has worked within the industry and on industry boards and had a direct engagement either as a member of parliament or in a private capacity for pretty much all of his adult life. He asked me to refer in the reply to some of the agreements that have come today in discussions with the Greens and to make sure that I went through that before we got to the point of having a vote.

It is interesting that when we wanted to get majority support in this parliament, to be able to get it through and get a free-enterprise position, we had a better chance with the Greens than we had with the Liberal Party. That is the nature of the negotiations we are in. But today we did reach an agreement with the Greens on amendments to this bill. The Greens have come to the table with an honest question about how we can best support the industry into deregulation.

The amendments agreed to will change the code of conduct from a voluntary code to a mandatory code under the ACCC. Industry will provide a draft code of conduct to the minister for agriculture, through approval, before the code becomes prescribed. Secondly, the government will establish an expert wheat industry task force to address the questions of wheat export standards and stocks information. This task force will advise government and industry on the development of grain quality standards for the Australian wheat export industry which will provide the accurate certificate of grain quality and which will be underpinned by uniform and accepted terminology. It will give users access to information that will enable them to determine this.

The task force will provide a framework for markets to establish grain quality improvement incentives and reflect the value of the end uses of grain. The task force will take into account scientific and other developments relating to the end-use performance of grain. The task force will also consider options for the most appropriate mechanisms to enable the publication of timely and accurate port capacity information. It will also look for the best means of implementing the quality standards developed by the task force as well as any other matters that the minister requests.

The deregulation of this industry has been going through a very long process, and the Liberal Party supported many stages of that journey at both the state and federal level. The attack that I received as minister for agriculture from the Liberal Party three years ago was that the reforms I was putting forward were not going far enough. They put amendments that I accepted to actually extend deregulation.

I congratulate the Nationals on what they have achieved in the joint party room. They have taken control of economic policy on one of our most significant exports. That is a big achievement for a little party. The Nationals should be very proud. This is back to the days of McEwen. They should be boasting quite proudly about what they have achieved. But the Liberal Party should be in absolutely no doubt of what they are about to do. Thankfully, not all of them are about to do it. Some of them have made comments that they intend to be true to the principles that their party stood for up until the new Leader of the Opposition arrived. There is a level of consistency, decency and intellectual honesty that has come from those members of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, they are very few and are not in the majority of their party.

At its core, we are going to have two votes, one of which will be to just keep putting it off and say, 'For the next few harvests we will keep telling you what to do, and then we will consider it.' Let us make no mistake: the Nats want that position because they want to go to higher levels of deregulation further down the track. That is at their core. They still have a policy for a single desk. We have a very proud member of the Nationals sitting right here who has always believed in that position. They think they might have half a chance. The first vote will be on the delay, and the second vote will be squarely on the bill. When we get to the second vote, the issue of the delay will be off the table so the Liberal Party cannot claim that is still their position. When we get to the second vote, the Liberals cannot say 'We are doing it for a delay.' That vote will have been had. When we get to the second vote, which we will take in a moment, be in no doubt: the Liberal Party will either be voting with the government to support free enterprise or voting with the Nationals to tell farmers what they are allowed to do. The Liberal Party's history of deregulation, I suspect, is about to be shown to have fundamentally changed. I commend the bill to the House.

The question is that the amendment be agreed to.


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